Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Robinson unbound

Peter Robinson
Promethean Dreams
Sue Crockford Gallery
12 February – 1 March 2008

Of the last three exhibitions Peter Robinson has held in Auckland, probably Ack at ARTSPACE was the one that attracted the most public acclaim. An installation more than a collection of sculpture, it featured fat, snakelike ‘worms’ of looping glued (and cut) polystyrene blocks and blue sponge rubber. More recently he had an exhibition of ‘chain sculpture’ in Christchurch at the Brooke/Gifford, and this current Sue Crockford show is a less fiddly variation of that. Unlike the holistic ARTSPACE project, he is showing discrete polystyrene sculptures, six of them.

Of these it is easy to see why Robinson entitled the exhibition after one of the works, for ‘Promethean Dreams’ is the best one by far due to its imposing height and thickness, a sculpture that looks like a rocky outcrop covered with flattened tussock or lichen, or streaming with flowing water from a recent downpour.

The show is chains galore. Before you decide Robinson is a closet bondage freak, have a wee squiz at the Crockford website here. Look at this adjectivally dense text by Allan Smith, but don’t be fooled. In my view Smith’s speculative inventive riffing begins well but ends barking up the wrong polystyrene tree. It doesn’t really inform about the experience of this show, and though clever in a mimetically visual way (its density mimics the layering of chains in a box), in essence it is more about the word ‘chain’ and not about visiting Crockford’s.

The point it misses is that the show is an examination of the physical limitations of the design of the link. The possibility of ‘chain’ as a devised material outside of it happening to be polystyrene in substance. The show focuses on ‘chainness’ as effected by physical laws, not metaphor, or narrative ingredient or semiotic. It is not about connectivity but reflexively about itself as material and how it can be shaped.

This is no surprise. Over the last two or three years Robinson has moved away from narrative content, any overtly political, scientific or philosophical exegesis in his work, and shifted towards simply having fun with materials and exploring the poetic visual nuances of whatever associations those materials happen to create. He is letting the materials speak to him so he can reveal their possibility, not starting with a notion that he can sculpt an illustration for.

So what can be done with differently sized chains, by themselves or mixed with other elements? Because they are flexible lines you can fasten, suspend, drape, and thread them, or tie them in knots. You can lay them out in lines, crunch them up concertina style, or crumple them into balls. Because they are light and portable they can be improvised according to the characteristics of the site, with decisions made on the spot.

The results we see can interpreted as crystalline or botanical forms, even ruins or hairy animals like yaks or Pekinese. They can refer to Aeschylus’ play and Shelley’s poem that feature figures in Greek myth, footnote contemporary artists like Robert Morris or Richard Serra, or writers like Deleuze and Guatarri – but these are red herrings. At heart they emphasise a process of breaking down the cultural to return it to nature, of making the cooked raw again. They can never of course totally replace cultural elements with the natural – for nature (like a gallery experience) can never be pure – but Robinson here (especially with the two main works) seems to be aiming at an elemental content, something well before the growth of human communities and culture: a bodily condition that is pre-mind and pre-narrative.


Ali Bramwell said...

I like this work from Robinson, and enjoyed what you have to say about it. Fair point about discarding an overworked textual reading, or trying to be too clever with irony and the tailoring of appropriate/ existing theories. I can happily agree the work doesn't seem illustrative or pedagogic, and that confident absence of earnest intent seems like a virtue.

However the work doesn't strike me as particularly limbic, or lizard brain. Elemental paradox are embedded as a game that seems too knowing. The placement of the work is structured and doesnt seem provisional, and the repeated chain device with its formal games of mass and scale are also very structured (just not in straight lines, no grid in sight).

-pre mind and pre narrative? I dont think so. Binary language is evident (on off present absent heavy light) even if adjectives and complex phrase construction have been elided. The artist is more laconic than intuitive.

John Hurrell said...

I think you are right, Ali. After all what would a 'pre-mind' or 'pre-narrative' gallery experience be. I don't think even philosophy of mind reseachers like John Searle or Daniel Dennett can tell us that.

I note that Robinson has called one of the smaller sculptures 'Weak Links and Anti Form,' the 'Anti Form' being a nod to Robert Morris. However Robinson's work is nothing like such 1968 Morris projects. It is still very much about objects, and as Morris' Anton Ehrenzweig quote found in 'Continuous Project Altered Daily' puts it: Our attempt at focussing must give way to the vacant all-embracing stare...